Lessons from Startup Culture Meetup

The great thing about startups and their leaders is a restless drive for improvement. I rarely meet people who see possibility and want to realize it with their energy or persistence.

Ongoing invention was the theme of Startup Culture Meetup last night by sponsored by KulturEnvy and Swissnex. I felt a profound hopefulness for organizations and leadership in general listening to Greg Kunkel, SVP & Co-founder at NextJump, James Psota, CTO & Co-founder at Panjiva, and Jason Henrichs, COO & Co-founder at PerkStreet Financial.Grow your own culture

‘Evolutionary pressure’ is good

Here’s an example of that restlessness. In conversation with Greg Kunkel, he described how startup and growing companies never free like they have enough people. What that means when someone leaves is that the team’s first thought is to replace that guy. But Kunkel asks, “Are you sure? You have the chance to change the way you do things, find efficiencies, maybe automate some part of the work, or pare back on what’s not critical. Be really sure there isn’t a better way to organize. Then we’ll find a replacement.”

You could choose to hear that as, “We’re not supporting team leaders. Do more with less.” But what he was communicating was his company’s way of thinking: don’t assume anything, take a close look at how conditions have changed and take advantage of them, adapt to thrive. Maybe he should call it the evolutionary pressure of small.

Invest in culture early

Henrichs summed up the lesson of the evening: “When you start, you don’t have time or money. Looking back, I wish we’d invested in culture more earlier.” Most of the advice that the three offered describe habits and initiatives that were cheap, too.

Psoto and Henrichs both talked about their decision to define mission, vision, and values – the seeds of culture – as part of their strategic plan. They spend time with every employee to communicate it. They take regular retreats. They also talked about how, over time, simplifying that vision and the expression of those values helped everyone clarify what’s important and recognize ways to bring them to life.

In fact, Kunkel talked about how they borrowed a method from an outstanding Manhattan preschool. NextJump now holds a twice monthly reflection time that asks, “What did we do? What will to do more of? What do we want to try in the next two weeks to make that work better?” That’s reflective practice. This bunch is well on their way to the goal of self leadership: to notice yourself in action, rather than afterward, and modify as you go: reflection in action.

Other ideas for action

Recruiting and selection: Psoto aptly said that the challenge of startups is primarily an emotional challenge, so be sure to interview for emotional intelligence and people’s ability to manage themselves under pressure. As a corallary, there are few processes and too few people. So much of the work is about making something new, under great uncertainty, all while under pressure. That requires people who can do the work, take responsibility, and create ad hoc process that fits the situation and toss them when facing a novel situation.

Performance: Kunkel and NextJump incorporated contribution to culture into the performance evaluation and review process as a measure comparable to contribution to revenue. He said, “That got people’s attention.” It’s not about being nice to each other, “it’s about everybody taking responsibility for creating the culture.”

Foster independent operators: Henrichs said, “We overinvest in communication and depend on peer to peer leadership.” He also described the way he communicates responsibility: leadership by staring. When people ask him whether they should do something, he just stares. He should have gotten a bigger laugh here. “What people come to understand,” he said, “Is that you don’t need my permission. What I’m not saying is, ‘Just go do it.'”

Maybe the most important factor of fostering independent operators is the effort these leader put into creating the mental models and principles for action. They place a premium on transparency, err on the side of distributing responsibility, are open to reviewing what’s not working and getting feedback themselves, and they engage in candid discussion about how well this deal or that feature conformed to company values. Taken together, these experience create ways of thinking that allow people to act in alignment with the vision and with those who share it. That takes real generosity in leaders. In fact, Henrichs describe how he didn’t even know that the team had rolled out a mobile app. And he was thrilled.

Kunkel said that when I comes to managing, “You can’t get people to do what you want.” Brilliant and true. “So how can I get them to do what they want that’s also what we want.” Given their commitment to creating culture that allows people to thrive and make a difference, these leaders recognize that you need an organization that can free them for a bigger, meaningful, creative act every day.

Ambushed! …By meetings

Talking to a prospective client the other day, he told me he’s ambushed by meetings.

This C-level leader works in a young company with an open work space. Someone periodically pops up and asks a question or recommends a solution to a problem. As a company leader, he cares about how that solution fits with others. Does it reflect our customer proposition? Does it offer value? is it feasible? But the conversation continues, others chime in, debate ensues, “And a meeting breaks out!” he said. He’s getting exasperated by those outbreaks. My colleague Rick Lent is right when he says that if you want to lead, you need to use meetings to get important work done. Hating even unanticipated meetings isn’t really an option.

Con sarn meetins!

The C-leader reminded me, a little wistfully, that he had worked at Kayak, where the CEO keeps meetings small. “If there’s a bunch of people in the room, I’ll stick my head in and say, ‘It takes 10 of you to decide this? There aren’t three of you smart enough to do this?'” That’s Paul English, co-founder and CTO of Kayak. To create focus, he’s imposed an artificial limit on people in a room. It’s a rough and ready way to force this question, “Who needs to be present to do this work wisely and well.” That’s one of Rick’s deceptively simple planning questions.

“I just hate design by consensus,” English continues. “No innovation happens with 10 people in a room. It’s very easy to be a critic and say why something won’t work. I don’t want that because new ideas are like these little precious things that can die very easily. Two or three people will nurture it, and make it stronger, give it a chance to see life.”  Rick recently showed how other technology leaders are using simple, effective meeting strategies like his.

Of course, small meetings make some things easier. Numbers matter. But English also sees small meetings bringing together supporters rather than critics. And that’s important when innovation is the goal.

But there are other assumptions built into his small meetings principle. First, that the people nuturing an idea are responsible for bringing others on board. For that to work, managers must welcome ideas even if they disrupt the hard work they put in to deliver consistent and repeatable process. And that also means that innovation and other measures of success trump predictability.

Small meetings aren’t the sole answer. But they’re part of the answer to the questions: How do we innovate? How do teams take responsibility for promoting strong ideas? and How do we take action as fast as possible? So when you solve your meeting “problems,” they’ll reflect the values of your organization. If you hate your meetings today, are they sustaining some unspoken values?

If you’re ambushed by meetings, you can use those Rick’s principles as jujitsu by asking some of the planning questions. When you’ve given it a try, I’d love to know what happened.

Lead this! Leadership demands call for a new mindset

The challenge is big.  Talking with VP of HR recently, he rehearsed the challenges of slow growth in Europe on the one hand and the potential for explosive growth in China and other countries throughout Asia.  His leaders need the business chops and the leadership agility to work in different markets with very different kinds of people.  He was quick to say that he’s got great people that are rising to the challenge.  Still, he’s got good reason to be concerned.

Jagged, uncertain, emergent

Persistent new demands call for a new leadership mindset

Developing a new kind of leader is the most urgent need identified by business and HR leaders worldwide in a recent study of human capital management trends published by Deloitte.

The report names the top three forces proving that today’s leadership model needs to change:

“Jagged markets”

As opportunity emerges in markets, leaders need to know how to create value from very different conditions: mature markets in Europe, emerging markets in Brazil, and discontinuous, entrepreneurial markets in, say, China.  The forces affecting strategy and execution change often.  Leaders need to operate well in all of them.

Chronic uncertainty

It is easier than ever to know what can be known.  But making sense of the complexity is more difficult than ever. And the drive for disruptive innovation makes likely that a competitor will appear where they are least expected.  Of course, leaders already know this.  But fewer leaders recognize and account for that uncertainty day by day.

Innovation threat

Established product and market leaders have less advantage today than they did ten years ago.  The ecosystem of opportunity is bigger than ever, which means that the environment leaders need to monitor is sprawling.  And it may be expanding.

Leadership thinking may hold you back

The leadership demands are big, too.  They’re bigger than anyone in a C-suite role.  But the mental model of the individual leader is deeply ingrained in minds and egos.  Those who want to be that superhuman leader may already be skidding off the fast track to that senior role that they, and many others, hoped they’d pull into without incident.

Becoming the leader and manager who can thrive in this environment is a leader’s responsibility.  But the organizations that rely on them have a responsibility to create the opportunities to thrive and learn.

If you’re a leader or responsible for leaders in your organization, what’s not working about our leadership model and how should we change our minds?

Who are you making yourself into today?

If there is a large gap between your daily conduct and your core commitment, you will become more like your daily activities and less attached to your original commitment.”

That paragraph opened this way, “Gradually, you become a different person.”

This was the most attention-getting quote from David Brooks’ op-ed piece yesterday. It may have been written for the classes of graduating college seniors. But it is true for leaders and those who want to have big, positive impact. Every day you’re remaking yourself through activity and attention. How’s it going? Who is the person you’re making today?

Brooks is alluding to insights emerging from neuroscience showing that attention and focus shape our neural pathways. We form and maintain the pathways that we need and use. Less well maintained pathways require more cognitive work and energy. The harder the work, the less likely we are to use those pathways under stress.

Who are you becoming today?But it’s in moments of anxiety and fear (that’s what stress feel like, after all) when we might want to be more thoughtful, focus on relationships, be open to new ideas, or draw on the power of reflection. In time, the old neural pathways become disused. Practically speaking, they’re unavailable to us. We’re a little less capable. Or we’re capable of doing what comes easily, even if it is not a good way to address today’s challenges. We are no longer who we were.

To be more capable, we need to foster the thinking that builds more options, not fewer. Paying attention is the first step. Reflecting on the meaning of experience creates opportunities to make small changes to the daily activity that’s making us who we are. How’s it going?

Happiness Day

What about my happiness day?Did you miss International Happiness Day on Wednesday this week? I nearly did. Here in the sovereign nation of bigIdea, my gross domestic happiness (GDH) growth curve took a dip. I have a right to be unhappy. Right? Difficult circumstances and unwelcome surprises bring us down. I’m unhappy and I know it. Or so I thought.

In fact, thanks to Susan David, I learned the common ways that clinicians are coming to understand the defintions and measures of happiness. Read her good blog post here.

Are you happy?

I did my own review:

  • I am doing meaningful work.
  • I am engaged in the present and its tasks.
  • I am not content, but I’m very hopeful.

In ancient Greece, no life was judged happy until after death. Was it a life that was worthy, well-lived, well-used in service of noble goals? By these measures, those Greeks were not happy until others judged them so.

In the 21st century, we experience happiness more subjectively. On good days, we seek to improve our GDH. We often look outside ourselves. We may look at our circumstances and feel stymied about how to change them. But we have the ability to change the growth curve of happiness.

  • What are you doing to infuse work and relationships with meaning?
  • What are you doing to engage with what you do and the people you do it with?
  • What are you doing to arrange for a pleasant-enough life to sustain you for the challenges you face?

I was happy and I didn’t know it.  Do you want to be happy? Happiness is produced by pursuing happiness. Today can be the first Happiness Day in your sovereign nation. Don’t miss it.

Values in action ARE the values. Ask Greg Smith

If you lead anybody or anything, and you think you know Greg Smith’s story, think again.  It’s a story about learning that could be worth $2.2 billion.

Greg Smith is another example of people who are telling leaders that their personal values are not that malleable.  Among the easy scapegoats for this cultural trend is one or another generational demographic:  Gen Y, millennials, whoever’s next.  But that’s too simplistic.  Forty-somethings and fifty-somethings are changing what they want from work, too.

What's that mean, anyway?
What is that value, really?

Smith is the guy who’s leaving your department to go to graduate school in an unrelated field, a high performer whose work has fallen off, the guy who is leaving to each English in China, and the woman who just left to start a bakery.  (Incidentally, the last example? That’s my wife.)  They tried to influence the conditions at work.  But they’re swimming against the tide and they can’t bear the cognitive dissonance any more.

What Smith said was that the Goldman culture he knew and joined had “revolved round teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients.”  He no longer saw those values in evidence.

Few companies can pay their employees enough to take the issue of values off the table.  If any can, it would be an investment bank.  But Smith said he “can no longer in good conscience say that I identify with what [the bank] stands for.”  Remember your Maslow: If you can eat and provide for your family, soon after issues of identity become the highest priority.

Leading means examining values that create value

The most important lesson for leaders is that values in practice need to be held up to scrutiny.

  • Are we the organization we say we are?
  • Is our private conversation a reflection of our public proclamations?
  • The last three things we did, how are they examples of who we are?
  • What values did this quarter’s work reflect?

This kind of continuous organizational learning gives everyone the chance to influence and reinforce the values that matter.  Everyone learns what values look like in action, even when they’re not all part of the mission statement, even when the organization falls a little short.  The kind of cognitive dissonance and isolation that Greg Smith felt won’t fester unattended until a departure from your company takes over the national news cycle for a week or so.

If you’re sure you don’t need to worry about Op-Ed pieces appearing in the New York Times, think about the unsolicited, unvarnished reports on Glassdoor.  How much could you save by discussing the values in action where you work or lead?

A leader is not an advisor

Leadership?“I believed … that a leader could operate as successfully as a kind of advisor to the organization.  I thought I could avoid being a “boss.”  Unconsciously, I suspect, I hoped to duck the unpleasant necessity of making difficult decisions, taking responsibility for one course of action among many uncertain alternatives, of making mistakes and taking the consequences.  I thought that maybe I could operate so that everyone would like me…I couldn’t have been more wrong.  It took a couple years, but I finally began to realized that a leaders cannot avoid the exercise of authority any more than he can avoid responsibility for what happens to his organization.” [Emphasis mine]

From “On Leadership” by Douglas McGregor, quoted in Productive Workplaces Revisited by Marvin R. Weisbord.

Thought starter on elearning strategy

A team I belong to wanted to begin to describe an learning strategy and asked me to start the discussion with a few questions.  Here’s what I shared with them.

What do we mean by elearning strategy?

The origins of the idea of strategy are military, where the word means a dynamic plan to win a war through a set of engagements that are linked to have maximum effect at a cost of acceptable numbers of lives lost. Since business is competitive by nature, it is easy to see how strategy became a term that means a dynamic plan to compete and win though a set of engagements linked to have maximum effect at an acceptable cost of winning and delivering that business. Winning is often defined in market share or other terms depending on the industry and the maturity of the market.

Engagement is an attractive and useful term for the elements of strategy, especially in our context, which is neither a battlefield nor a market. As members of a the administrative core of a public service, not-for-profit organization, our competitive playing field could be described as seizing opportunity out of thin air. Few other businesses or groups will seize the opportunity that we would have won, but without focus on a set of objectives and persistence, the opportunity will go unrealized or disappear.

An elearning strategy is part of a learning strategy. Every organization has one, expressed in the training, learning, coaching, and mentoring it does. As I understand the mission of learning and training for those in administrative roles here, it is “to equip employees to carry out their current and future roles effectively and with integrity.” “Winning” in this context might be stated in terms of number of people who consistently carry out their job responsibilities and solve problems effectively and with integrity.

We have engaged in achieving this goal – our strategy – by delivering programs (e.g. ILT, elearning, documentation, demonstrations, etc.) from our respective departments, where capability and requirements reside. Through [another committee], we have progressively collaborated on linking our initiatives, a key feature of strategic engagement.

In light of these reflections, strategy seems to require that:

  • Our mission is sound:   That is, our purpose is aligned with the organization’s mission and that direction is consistent with that of our leaders
  • Opportunity exists and can be defined:   That is, we recognize what can be gained – what we want to win – and that it can be stated in ways that make it possible measure success.
  • Capability exists or can be built:    That is, the organization has what it takes to seize the opportunity, or we are willing to do what it takes to develop it. (Or as we all learned from Princess Bride, never fight a land war in Asia.)
  • Gains are clear, objective, and worth the cost:  That is, when we have seized the opportunity, it will have demonstrable benefit to those we serve: the staff and administrative employees, and administrative leaders

Strategy questions

What opportunity does elearning offer?

  • If we were competing, what would we want to win? If we are seizing opportunity from thin air, what are we creating that would not exist otherwise?

What capabilities do we (the elearning team/community of practice) have to offer to seize that opportunity?

  • Can we win, or do we need to build capability?

What will the organization gain when we seize that opportunity?

  • How will the working and learning profile be different in three to five years if we “win”? What will administrative leaders say about the role of elearning in achieving that state?

Note:   If you find yourself answering the question “how,” you’re talking tactics. Whoa, Nelly! Strategy first.

Know where you’re going

I had dinner with an old friend a couple days ago and he told me this story.

My son – he’s four – has been going to a great daycare this summer.  They organize some kind of learning around theme days.  Last week they chose pirate days.  I’m not sure what they learned, but he brought home a little plastic compass.  Apparently you need compass on the bounding main.  I was leaving for work the next day.  I said goodbye and he offered me the compass.

“Here, Daddy,” he said.  “Take this with you so you always know which way is North.”  You know how that turns your heart to loving mush.  But he didn’t want me to get lost and knew that pirates use a compass to find their way on the open sea.  I was delivering training to new managers that day.  I started class by assuring them, “Thanks to my son, we can”t get lost, no matter what happens, because I have a compass and I know where I’m going.”


Not a verbatim account, but that’s what I heard.

We are all our own leaders

Every day the demands on the job threaten to distract us from the few simple good things we’re aiming at.  Thanks to a four year old, I’m reminded of the two most important principles to live and work by, no matter what you do or what level you’ve achieved in the organization.

Principles for being your own leader (Thanks to Cap’n Jack)
  • Stick to the heading the leads to your destination.
  • Be a pirate!